IN a recent, off-the-record meeting between Israeli and Palestinian officials, one in a series of secret meetings that have taken place since the peace process began, a participant from Gaza asked a participant from Israel, a former general with years of experience in the occupied territories, to consider the following scenario: ``Gaza has self-rule. A Palestinian from Gaza drives into Ashkelon [an Israeli city near the Gaza Strip] and stabs an Israeli. What would happen?'' The general replied, ``That's easy. We would seal off the Gaza Strip.''
The Gaza-Jericho accord has been hailed as a breakthrough in Palestinian-Israeli relations, and it may well be. But it is too early to tell. The test will come after the rhetoric has receded and the actual work of implementing self-rule begins. But if the Israeli general is correct, and his response indicative of future relations between Israel and the Gaza Strip under conditions of self-rule, the question is, ``What is really going to change?''
Opposition to the accord in Gaza is preponderant and has already resulted in factional violence. However, it would be a serious mistake to assume that internal opposition is simply the product of Hamas rejectionists. It is not. It emanates, most profoundly, from a clear set of concerns over the accord's impact on the future of the territory and the process of nation-building. One such concern derives from the way in which the Gaza-Jericho plan was formulated and the needs it was designed to address. The plan did not emerge in response to nor was it informed by the abysmal reality of life on the ground. Palestinians in the occupied territories and their delegates to the peace talks (and other parties of the PLO with a following in Gaza), were neither informed nor consulted by Yasser Arafat and his party, Fatah. Instead, they were bypassed and ignored. Their own interests were subsumed to those of one PLO faction, to Israel, and to the United States. Gazans, who have perhaps paid the greatest individual and collective price for the Palestinian uprising, have long felt abandoned by the PLO and increasingly betrayed by it. For many, perhaps most, the Gaza-Jericho accord is simply another act of desertion.
Another concern is the spheres of control Israel is promising to give Palestinians. The accord's Declaration of Principles states that Israel will cede authority to Palestinians in the areas of education and culture, health, social welfare, direct taxation, and tourism. Yet, prior to the intifadah, before the large scale resignation of Palestinian employees from the civil administration and an overall breakdown in services, Palestinians had much authority over the very sectors they are now being promised with the exception of taxation. These ``new'' powers represent little more than what Palestinians had long possessed. Not only are the areas of authority distinguished by those that are missing and are most critical - land and water - they raise the possibility and the fear of normalization. This means the status quo ante, occupation, rather than a new status quo, statehood.
Gaza is a society without leaders. During the uprising Israeli authorities destroyed Gaza's leadership structure through imprisonment, deportation, and killing. Without leaders there can be no authority, particularly in a setting where the home and the classroom have ceased to exist. Minus leaders and authority, civil society in Gaza has become further disabled, characterized by widening societal divisions, fragmentation, and factionalization. Rapid economic erosion and gross insecurity have fueled the disintegration process. In the words of one leader, ``No one speaks for Gaza but many speak for themselves.''
Gazans see the problem but do not know how to solve it. What they fear most, perhaps more than their own inability to heal themselves, is an imposition of structures that will deepen their wounds. The accord may well intensify existing divisions by pitting those who support it against those who do not. More importantly it threatens to impose yet another externally-conceived political arrangement on a people unwilling to accept it. Hence, Palestinians run the risk of being seen as ungovernable when, in fact, what they are seeking is the proper form of government.
In an irony that can only be found in the Middle East, Israeli soldiers are now arresting Palestinians demonstrating against Arafat and the PLO. In the Kafkaesque world of Gaza this turnaround is not so peculiar. For may Gazans it begs the question, ``Is this what self-rule is all about.''